Congresswoman Maloney Tackles COVID-19 Misinformation

Nov 17, 2021
Press Release

WASHINGTON, DC — At today’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis hybrid hearing titled “Combating Coronavirus Cons and The Monetization of Misinformation,” Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, called out fringe groups, right-wing media figures, and others who have promoted COVID-19 misinformation online, which has contributed to our nation’s inability to defeat this pandemic, and asked a panel of experts for solutions on how to stop the spread of this misinformation.


During her questioning, Congresswoman Maloney stated, “For over a year now, fringe groups, right-wing media figures, and others have promoted misinformation about the coronavirus online — often with the support of former President Trump and his supporters. Fake cures like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, false rumors [that] vaccines cause infertility or alter DNA, and many other lies have spread at lightning speed. These lies are so widespread that they are undermining our nation’s ability to defeat this virus.”


She then asked Dr. Aeschlimann, Associate Professor, Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Pharmacy, School of Medicine at the University of Connecticut, “How is the spread of misinformation and junk science undermining our public health?”


Dr. Aeschlimann answered, “Thank you, in a number of ways it is. I think that the predominance of the spread of that on social media it seeds doubt and skepticism in the minds of people that may be less likely to understand or believe reputable research data that shows that certain things are beneficial either for preventing or treating disease. It can cause direct patient harm like the case example that I gave, so I think it has very widespread impact on patient health and on citizens’ pocketbooks as well.”


Rep. Maloney then turned to Dr. Kolina Koltai, Postdoctoral Fellow at Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington asking, “Are tech companies doing enough to monitor and remove misinformation about the coronavirus from their platforms?”


Dr. Koltai responded, “It is a complicated answer because there’s certainly action being done. And I think they’ve gotten better over the years as someone used to studying the issue of vaccine misinformation particularly on Facebook since about 2015. They’ve gotten better, but certainly not enough, right? In an age of a pandemic, where we’re still fighting the disease where, you know, thousands and thousands of Americans lives are still being lost, anyone can go on any platform and find misinformation. And I want to be clear when I talk about vaccine misinformation: it is incorrect or misleading information shared to influence public opinion or obscure the truth about vaccines. And so the important thing is that you still see posts and content on Facebook, on many different social media platforms, that argue that vaccines are not safe and argue that they’re not efficacious. And I think everyone here can agree that vaccines are safe and efficacious. And I would like to see, on the part of social media platforms, to do better. There is a long list of things that companies can do to help mitigate the algorithmic promotion and spread of viral misinformation on those platforms.”


Congresswoman Maloney continued asking, “What more can be done to combat COVID misinformation online?”


Dr. Koltai replied, “Absolutely. So an example I actually provided in my written testimony is something that Amazon even can do better. When you search for vaccine content on a platform like Amazon, the very first, top results are often services that promote vaccine refusal or vaccine misinformation. So at minimum, a platform like Amazon can think about deprioritizing and de-ranking so that more trustworthy sources can appear as a top result. […] Another way, for example, is looking at what we call sometimes ephemeral or temporary content. So on a platform like Instagram, you have something called Instagram Stories and Instagram Lives and a lot of video content. And the content in those spaces often go completely unchecked. I think for some people it is considered not a priority because it is gone within 24 hours. But the way that these social media platforms work is that you have an engaged follower who will go and view that content and it can get downloaded, it can get shared, and spread. across multiple platforms. So even addressing, even looking out for misinformation in spaces that we may not even think about could be another way.”


Finally, Congresswoman Maloney asked María Teresa Kumar, President and Chief Executive Officer of Voto Latino, “How has misinformation undermined vaccine confidence and why is the work of these community-based organizations so crucial?”


Ms. Kumar replied, “I think the majority of the things that we know from social media, and what the professor just mentioned, is that peer to peer is critical in order for people to actually pay attention. So community-based organizations they are on the front lines but they are also part of the community. They are individuals that people care about. And they trust that the information that they're receiving on the vaccine is important. […] And the only way that we're going to get through this is for the investment that President Biden is doing to make sure that again, local communities are at the frontlines giving individuals important information so that they can no longer be vaccine hesitant and healthy.”


Congresswoman Maloney closed by invoking a call to action, stating that “More than two-thirds of Americans have already been vaccinated, but to defeat this virus, we need every eligible American to get the vaccine.”


You can watch the full exchange here.